Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman
Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 15: The Nature of Evil
Buber’s philosophy of dialogue is the source, ultimately, both for his answer to the question of what man is and to the problem of evil. It is entering into relation that makes man really man; it is the failure to enter into relation that in the last analysis constitutes evil, or non-existence; and it is the re-establishment of relation that leads to the redemption of evil and genuine human existence. Thus at the heart of Buber’s philosophy the problem of evil and the problem of man merge into one in the recognition of relation as the fundamental reality of man’s life.
The dynamic of man, that which man as man has to fulfill, is unthinkable without evil. Man first became man through being driven out of Paradise. Good and evil form together the body of the world. If man had simply to live in the good, then there would be no work of man. That work is: to make the broken world whole. Paradise is at the lower end of separateness, but in order that its upper part, the kingdom, the great peace and unification, come, evil is necessary.... Evil is the hardness which divides being from being, being from God. The act of decision, of breakthrough . . . that is the act through which man time and again participates in the redemption of the world. (Quoted in Kohn, Martin Buber, op. cit., p. 308, from a course on the Tao Tech’ting which Buber gave at Ascona in the summer of 1924 [my translation].)
In the Preface to Images of Good and Evil Buber writes that he has been preoccupied with the problem of evil since his youth. It was not until the year following the First World War, however, that he approached it independently, and it is only in this, one of the very latest of his books, that he has achieved full maturity and clarity on the subject. (Images of Good and Evil, p. 9) The Yehudi in Buber’s chronicle-novel reproaches the Seer of Lublin for dwelling on Gog, the mythical incarnation of an external, metaphysical evil:
‘He can exist in the outer world only because he exists within us.’ He pointed to his own breast. ‘The darkness out of which he was hewn needed to be taken from nowhere else than from our slothful and malicious hearts. Our betrayal of God has made Gog to grow so great.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, op. cit., p. 54)
It is to this speech of the Yehudi’s that Buber points in the Preface to Images of Good and Evil as the answer to the question of the point of attack for the struggle against evil. (Images, p. 11) This point of attack must not be understood simply as man against what is not man but as what the individual knows from his own inner experience as against what he encounters outside of himself.
‘I certainly gain no experience of evil when I meet my fellow-man. For in that case I can grasp it only from without, estrangedly or with hatred and contempt, in which case it really does not enter my vision; or else, I overcome it with my love and in that case I have no vision of it either. I experience it when I meet myself.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, p.57)
Man knows evil when he recognizes the condition in which he finds himself as the ‘evil’ and knows the condition he has thereby lost and cannot for the time being regain as the good. It is through this inner encounter alone that evil becomes accessible and demonstrable in the world; for ‘it exists in the world apart from man only in the form of quite general opposites,’ embracing good and ill and good and bad as well as good and evil. The specific opposition good-evil is peculiar to man because it can only be perceived introspectively:
A man only knows factually what ‘evil’ is in so far as he knows about himself, everything else to which he gives this name is merely mirrored illusion; . . . self-perception and self-relationship are the peculiarly human, the irruption of a strange element into nature, the inner lot of man. (Images pp. 21f., 33.)
When the demon is encountered at the inner threshold, there is no longer any room for taking attitudes toward it: ‘the struggle must now be fought out.’ Despite the real difficulty of this inner struggle, man can overcome temptation and turn back to God. For if evil, in Buber’s conception, is rebellion against God with the power He has given man to do evil, good is the turning toward God with this same power. If evil is a lack of direction, good is a finding of direction, of the direction toward God. If evil is the predominance of I-It, good is the meeting with the Thou, the permeation of I-It by I-Thou. Thus in each case good and evil are bound together as they could not be if evil were an independent substance with an existence of its own.
Good and evil, then, cannot be a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath. ‘Good’ is the movement in the direction of home, ‘evil’ is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes awry. (Between Man and Man, ‘The Question to the Single One’ p. 78 f.)
Good and evil are usually thought of as ‘two structurally similar qualities situated at opposite poles.’ But this is because they are treated as ethical abstractions rather than as existent states of human reality. When one looks at them ‘in the factual context of the life of the human person,’ one discovers their ‘fundamental dissimilarity in nature, structure, and dynamics.’ (Images, p. 62 f)
Evil, for Buber, is both absence of direction and absence of relation, for relation and direction as he uses them are different aspects of the same reality. The man who cannot say Thou with his whole being to God or man may have ‘the sublime illusion of detached thought that he is a self-contained self; as man he is lost.’ Similarly, the man who does not keep to the One direction as far as he is able may have ‘the life of the spirit, in all freedom and fruitfulness, all standing and status -- existence there is none for him without it.’ (Between Man and Man, ‘What is Man?’, p. 168 Images, p. 83.)
The clearest illustration of the ultimate identity, for Buber, of evil as absence of direction and evil as absence of relation is his treatment of ‘conscience.’ Conscience, to him, is the voice which calls a man to fulfill the personal intention of being for which he was created. It is ‘the individual’s awareness of what he "really" is, of what in his unique and non-repeatable created existence he is intended to be.’ Hence it implies both dialogue and direction -- the dialogue of the person with an ‘other’ than he now is which gives him an intimation of the direction he is meant to take. This presentiment of purpose is ‘inherent in all men though in the most varied strengths and degrees of consciousness and for the most part stifled by them.’ When it is not stifled, it compares what one is with what one is called to become and thereby distinguishes and decides between right and wrong. Through this comparison, also, one comes to feel guilt.
Each one who knows himself . . . as called to a work which he has not done, each one who has not fulfilled a task which he knows to be his own, each who did not remain faithful to his vocation which he had become certain of -- each such person knows what it means to say that ‘his conscience smites him.’ (Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘Religion and Modern Thinking,’ p. 115 f., ‘Religion and Ethics, ‘p. 125 f.)
Guilt is the product of not taking the direction toward God. The guilty man is he who shuns the dialogue with God, and this means also he who does not enter into the dialogue with man and the world. ‘Original guilt consists in remaining with oneself.’ If the being before whom this hour places one is not met with the truth of one’s whole life, then one is guilty.
Heidegger is right to say that . . . we are able to discover a primal guilt. But we are not able to do this by isolating a part of life, the part where the existence is related to itself and to its own being, but by becoming aware of the whole life without reduction, the life in which the individual, in fact, is essentially related to something other than himself. (At the Turning, op. cit., p. 56; Between Man and Man, ‘What Is Man?’, p. 165 f)
The fact that one discovers guilt in relation with something other than oneself does not contradict the fact that one discovers evil first of all in the meeting with oneself. This meeting takes place only if one remains aware of the voice of conscience. The man who fails to face the evil within him or affirms it as good is precisely the man who remains with himself and suppresses his awareness of direction, his awareness of the address of God which comes to him from what is ‘other’ than he.
The specific structure of evil in the human person cannot be explained as a result of the ‘moral censorship’ of society. ‘There can be no question at all here of the psychology of "inhibitions’, and "repressions," which operate no less against some social convention or other than when it is a matter of that which is felt to be evil in the full meaning of the word.’ One’s inner encounter with evil does not presuppose that ‘self-analysis’ of modern psychology which seeks to penetrate ‘behind’ the experience, ‘to "reduce" it to the real elements assumed to have been "repressed."’ What is needed here, rather, is the technique of the philosophical anthropologist who first participates in the experience and then gains the distance indispensable for objective knowledge. ‘Our business is to call to mind an occurrence as reliably, concretely and completely remembered as possible, which is entirely unreduced and undissected.’ The state of evil is experienced within ourselves in such a way that ‘its differentiation from every other state of the soul is unmistakable.’ This experience leads us to inquire as to the existence of evil as an ontological reality. (Images, pp. 59, 63 ff.; cf. Between Man and Man, ‘What Is Man?’, pp. 123-126.)
If this inquiry is to be successful, says Buber, it must make use of the truth found in the myths of the origin of evil. The experience which has taken place in countless factual encounters with evil has been directly embodied in these myths without passing through any conceptual form. Rightly interpreted, therefore, ‘they tell us of the human constitution and movement of evil’ and of its relation to good. We can only interpret them rightly, however, if we accord to their account that manner of belief which comes from our personal experience of evil. ‘Only out of the conjunction of these two, primordial mythic intuition and directly experienced reality, does the light of the legitimate concept arise for this sphere too, probably the most obscure of all.’ The concept which arises from this conjunction serves as an indispensable bridge between myth and reality which enables man to see the two together. Without it man ‘listens to the myth of Lucifer and hushes it up in his own life.’ (Images, pp 57-60, 12)
The myths that Buber interprets in Images of Good and Evil are the Biblical and the Zoroastrian, for, in his opinion, ‘these correspond with two fundamentally different kinds and stages of evil.’ He portrays the first of these stages, decisionlessness, through an interpretation of the myths of Adam and Eve, Cain, and the Flood. When Adam and Eve take the fruit, they do not make a decision between good and evil but rather imagine possibilities of action and then act almost without knowing it, sunk in ‘a strange, dreamlike kind of contemplation.’ Cain, similarly, does not decide to kill Abel -- he does not even know what death and killing are. Rather he intensifies and confirms his indecision. ‘In the vortex of indecision . . . at the point of greatest provocation and least resistance,’ he strikes out. Man grasps at every possibility ‘in order to overcome the tension of omnipossibility’ and thus makes incarnate a reality which is ‘no longer divine but his, his capriciously constructed, indestinate reality:’ It is this, in the story of the Flood, which causes God to repent of having made man. The wickedness of man’s actions does not derive from a corruption of the soul but from the intervention of the evil ‘imagery.’ This imagery is a ‘play with possibility,’ a ‘self-temptation, from which ever and again violence springs.’ The place of the real, perceived fruit is taken by a possible, devised, fabricated one which can be and finally is made into the real one. Imagination, or ‘imagery,’ is not entirely evil, however. It is man’s greatest danger and greatest opportunity, a power which can be left undirected or directed to the good. It is in this understanding of imagery that the Talmudic doctrine of the two ‘urges’ originated. Yetser, the Biblical word for ‘imagery,’ is identical, in fact, with the Talmudic word for the evil and good urges. The ‘evil urge’ is especially close to the ‘imagery of man’s heart’ which the Bible speaks of as ‘evil from his youth,’ for it is identical with ‘passion, that is, the power peculiar to man, without which he can neither beget nor bring forth but which, left to itself, remains without direction and leads astray.’ (Images, pp. 13-42)
Man becomes aware of possibility, writes Buber, ‘in a period of evolution which generally coincides with puberty without being tied to it.’ This possibility takes the form of possible actions which threaten to submerge him in their swirling chaos. To escape from this dizzy whirl the soul either sets out upon the difficult path of bringing itself toward unity or it clutches at any object past which the vortex happens to carry it and casts its passion upon it. In this latter case, ‘it exchanges an undirected possibility for an undirected reality, in which it does what it wills not to do, what is preposterous to it, the alien, the "evil."’ It breaks violently out of the state of undirected surging passion ‘wherever a breach can be forced’ and enters into a pathless maze of pseudo-decision, a ‘flight into delusion and ultimately into mania.’ Evil, then, is lack of direction and what is done in and out of it: ‘the grasping, seizing, devouring, compelling, seducing, exploiting, humiliating, torturing and destroying of what offers itself.’ It is not an action, for ‘action is only the type of evil happening which makes evil manifest.’ The evil itself lies in the intention: ‘The project of the sin and the reflecting upon it and not its execution is the real guilt.’ (Ibid., pp.66-73, 80; Two Types of Faith, op. cit., p. 64 f.)
Evil is not the result of a decision, for true decision is not partial but is made with the whole soul. ‘Evil cannot be done with the whole soul; good can only be done with the whole soul.’ There can be no wholeness ‘where downtrodden appetites lurk in the corners’ or where the soul’s highest forces watch the action, ‘pressed back and powerless, but shining in the protest of the spirit.’ (Images, p. 70 f.) The absence of personal wholeness is a complement, therefore, to the absence of direction and the absence of relation. If one does not become what one is meant to be, if one does not set out in the direction of God, if one does not bring one’s scattered passions under the transforming and unifying guidance of direction, then no wholeness of the person is possible. Conversely, without attaining personal wholeness, one can neither keep to direction nor enter into full relation.
Buber portrays the second stage of evil, the actual decision to evil, through an interpretation of the Zoroastrian myths found in the Avesta and in post-Avestic literature. Here we meet good and evil as primal moving spirits set in real opposition to one another, and here, for the first time, evil assumes a substantial and independent nature. In the hymns of Zoroaster God’s primal act is a decision within himself which prepares and makes possible the self-choice of good and evil by which each is first rendered effectual and factual. Created man, similarly, finds himself ever again confronted by the necessity of distinguishing deception from truth and deciding between them. The primal spirits stand between God and man and like them choose between good and evil. But in the case of Ahriman, the evil spirit, this choice takes place in pure paradox since in choosing he acknowledges himself precisely as the evil.
This paradox is developed further in the saga of the primeval king Yima, who assumes dominion over the world at the bidding of the highest God, Ahura Mazdah. After a flood similar to the Biblical one, Yima lets loose the demons whom he has hitherto held in check and allows the lie to enter through lauding and blessing himself. Yima’s lie is ‘the primal lie . . . of humanity as a whole which ascribes the conquest of the power of nature to its own superpower. It is the existential lie against being in which man sees himself as a self-creator. Man chooses in decisive hours between being-true and being-false, between strengthening, covering, and confirming being at the point of his own existence or weakening, desecrating, and dispossessing it. He who chooses the lie in preference to the truth intervenes directly in the decisions of the world-conflict. ‘But this takes effect in the very first instance at just his point of being’: by giving himself over to non-being which poses as being, he falls victim to it. Thus Yima falls into the power of the demons whose companion he has become and is destroyed by them.
Corresponding to the myth of Yima’s rebellion and of his self-deification and fall are the Old Testament stories of the tower of Babel and of the foolhardy angels, such as Lucifer (Isa. xiv), who imagined themselves godlike and were cast down. Similarly, good and evil appear again and again in the Old Testament, as in the Avesta, as alternative paths before which man stands and which he must choose between as between life and death (Deut. xxx, 19). The human reality corresponding to the myths of Ahriman’s choice and Lucifer’s downfall, writes Buber, can only be understood through our own observations, supplemented by historical and biographical literature. These give us some insight into the crises of the self which make the person’s psychic dynamic secretive and obdurate and lead him into the actual decision to evil.
This second stage of evil as decision follows from the first stage of evil as indecision. The repeated experiences of indecision merge in self-knowledge into ‘a course of indecision,’ a fixation in it. ‘As long as the will to simple self-preservation dominates that to being-able-to-affirm oneself,’ this self-knowledge is repressed. But when the will to affirm oneself asserts itself, man calls himself in question. Buber explains the crisis of the self which results from this questioning through a development of his philosophical anthropology. For this anthropology man is the creature of possibility who needs confirmation by others and by himself in order that he may be and become the particular man that he is. ‘Again and again the Yes must be spoken to him . . . to liberate him from the dread of abandonment, which is a foretaste of death.’ One can in a pinch do without confirmation from others, but not that of oneself. When a person’s self-knowledge demands inner rejection, he either falls into a pathologically fragile and intricate relationship to himself, readjusts self-knowledge through that extreme effort of unification called ‘conversion,’ or displaces his knowledge of himself by an absolute self-affirmation. In this last case, the image of what he is intended to be is totally extinguished, and in its place he wills or chooses himself just as he is, just as he has resolved to intend himself. This self-affirmation in no sense means real personal wholeness but just its opposite -- a crystallized inner division. ‘They are recognizable, those who dominate their own self-knowledge, by the spastic pressure of the lips, the spastic tension of the muscles of the hand and the spastic tread of the foot.
The man who thus affirms himself resembles Yima, who proclaims himself his own creator. It is in this light too that we can understand the paradoxical myth of the two spirits, one of whom chose evil precisely as evil. The ‘wicked’ spirit, in whom evil is already present in a nascent state, has to choose between the affirmation of himself and the affirmation of the order which establishes good and evil. ‘If he affirms the order he must himself become "good," and that means he must deny and overcome his present state of being. If he affirms himself he must deny and reverse the order.’ The ‘good’ is now just that which he is, for he can no longer say no to anything that is his. This absolute self-affirmation is the lie against being, for through it truth is no longer what he experiences as truth but what he ordains to be true. (Images, pp. 43-56 60 f. 73-79.)
In ‘Imitatio Dei,’ Buber says that Adam’s fall consisted in his wanting to reach the likeness to God intended for him in his creation by other means than that of the imitation of the unknown God. This substitution of self-deification for the ‘imitation of God’ lies at the heart not only of the fall of Adam but also that of Yima. In Adam’s case, however, it is a matter of ‘becoming-like-God’ through knowing good and evil, whereas in Yima’s it is a matter of ‘being-like-God’ through proclaiming oneself as the creator both of one’s existence and of the values by which that existence is judged. The first stage of evil does not yet contain a ‘radical evil’ since the misdeeds which are committed in it are slid into rather than chosen as such. But in the second stage evil becomes radical because there man wills what he finds in himself. He affirms what he has time and again recognized in the depths of self-awareness as that which should be negated and thereby gives evil ‘the substantial character which it did not previously possess.’ ‘If we may compare the occurrence of the first stage to an eccentric whirling movement, the process of the freezing of flowing water may serve as a simile to illustrate the second.’ (Israel and the World, op. cit., p. 73; Images, pp. 62,80 f.)
In his interpretation of Psalm 1 in Right and Wrong, Buber makes an essential distinction between the ‘wicked’ man and the ‘sinner’ corresponding to the two stages of evil which we have discussed. The sinner misses God’s way again and again while the wicked opposes it. ‘Sinner’ describes a condition which from time to time overcomes a man without adhering to him, whereas ‘wicked’ describes a kind of man, a persistent disposition. ‘The sinner does evil, the wicked man is evil. That is why it is said only of the wicked, and not of the sinners, that their way vanishes . . .’ Although the sinner is not confirmed by the human community, he may be able to stand before God, and even entry into the human community is not closed to him if he carries out that turning into God’s way which he desires in the depths of his heart. The ‘wicked,’ in contrast, does not ‘stand’ in the judgment before God. His way is his own judgment: since he has negated his existence, he ends in nothing. Does this mean that the way of God is closed to the wicked man? ‘It is not closed from God’s side . . . but it is closed from the side of the wicked themselves. For in distinction to the sinners they do not wish to be able to turn.’ Here there arises for us the question of how an evil will can exist when God exists. To this question, says Buber, no human word knows the answer: ‘The abyss which is opened by this question advances still more uncannily than the abyss of Job’s question into the darkness of the divine mystery.’ (Good and Evil, Right and Wrong,’ ‘The Ways, Psalm 1,’ pp. 51 f., 58 ff. 109)
Although Buber’s distinction between the two stages of evil did not reach its mature form until 1951, a much greater emphasis on the reality of evil is evident in his works since 1940 than in his earlier writings. In Moses (1944) we find a new emphasis on the demonic, one which in no way conflicts, however, with the conception of God as the ultimate source of both good and evil. A further step in the direction of radical evil is indicated by the story of Korah’s rebellion. Korah’s assertion that the people are already holy is the choice of evil, the choice of the people to follow the wrong path of their hearts and reject the way of God. This rebellion of the Korahites seems all the more evil since we are told that it is precisely Moses’ humility, his fundamental faith in spontaneity and in freedom, which provokes the ‘Korahite’ reaction among men of the Korah type. Nor is Moses able to transform this evil into good; he can only extirpate it:
Since, however, his whole work, the Covenant between God and people, is threatened, he must now doom the rebels to destruction, just as he once ordered Levites to fight against Levites. There is certainly something sinister underlying the legend of the earth which opened its mouth and swallowed up the rebels.
Although ‘here the eternal word is opposed by eternal contradiction,’ this is not to be understood as a metaphysical statement implying the absolute and independent reality of evil. It is rather the ‘tragedy of Moses,’ who cannot redeem the evil of Korah because ‘men are as they are.’ (Martin Buber, Moses [Oxford: East & West Library, 1946] pp. 56-59, 184-190.)
It is the tragedy of ‘the cruel antitheticalness of existence itself,’(For the Sake of Heaven, 2nd Edition, op. cit., Foreword, p. x.) the tragedy implicit in man’s misuse of the freedom which was given him in his creation.
Closely similar to Korah’s antinomian revolt in the name of divine freedom is that of the two self-proclaimed Messiahs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. Buber’s distinction between these two men in an essay written between 1940 and 1943 contains the seed of his later distinction between evil as decisionlessness and evil as self-affirmation. Sabbatai Zevi clearly believes in something absolute and in himself in relation to it. When he becomes an apostate to escape martyrdom, ‘it is not the belief as such but his belief in himself that does not stand firm.’ Frank believes in nothing, not even in himself. He is not a liar but a lie, and ‘he can only believe in himself after the manner of the lie by filling the space of the nothing with himself.’ As a result he knows no inner restraint, and his very freedom from restraint gives him a magical influence over his followers. When, however, his nihilistic belief in himself is threatened by the crisis of self-reflection, it must draw nourishment from ‘the warm flesh and blood of the belief of others in him,’ or else it would cease to exist. His group of disciples with its orgies and raptures and its unconditioned self-surrender ‘to a leader who leads it into nothing’ affords ‘an unsurpassable spectacle of disintegration.’ ‘The abyss has opened,’ writes Buber in an historical present that strongly suggests the real present as well. ‘It is no more allowed to any man to live as if evil did not exist. One cannot serve God by merely avoiding evil; one must grapple with it.’ (Hasidism, op. cit., ‘The Beginnings of Hasidism,’ pp. 10 ff., 25 f., 29 f.)
There is undoubtedly a close relation between Buber’s growing tendency to ascribe reality to evil and the events of the past decades -- in particular, the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews, the Second World War, and the war in Palestine (‘for me the most grievous of the three [wars]’ [Two Types of Faith, p. 15.]) In the case of Nazism this connection is made explicit in Buber’s comparison of Jacob Frank with Hitler. ‘It is significant,’ writes Buber, ‘that it is in our time that the man has arisen in whom the tension between what one is and what one should be is dissolved -- the man without conscience. The secret of Hitler’s effectiveness lies, in fact, in his complete and fundamental absence of restraint.’ The only person in an earlier age whom Buber can find to compare to Hitler is Jacob Frank, for only these two believed in nothing else than their own power. Such a belief in oneself is ordinarily only possible to one who feels himself in the fullest sense of the term commissioned and empowered by the absolute. Those who do not believe in any absolute cannot believe in this sense in the self, but the absence of restraint is accompanied by the natural ability and perfected readiness to avoid that reflection on oneself that would make one’s own emptiness apparent. (Martin Buber, Pointing the Way, op. cit., ‘People and Leader,’ pp. 151-156, 158 ff.)
Does this new emphasis on a ‘radical’ and ‘substantive’ evil mean that we can no longer place Buber in that middle position which regards evil as real but redeemable, thus refusing to ascribe to it an absolute and independent reality? Does Buber’s use of the Iranian myths, the most important historical fountainhead of dualism, not only serve to illustrate an anthropological reality but also imply a dualistic metaphysics? Images of Good and Evil itself supplies the answer to our question. Buber makes it clear there that it is not man’s nature which is evil but only his use of that nature. There are, to be sure, wicked men whose end is non-existence -- this accords with the simple facts -- but there are no men whom God cuts off as simply evil and therefore by nature hostile to His purpose. If some men bring evil to a ‘radical’ stage where it possesses a substantial quality, this does not mean that evil is here independent and absolute, nor even ultimately unredeemable, but only that it has crystallized into a settled opposition by the individual to becoming what he is meant to become. ‘Good . . . retains the character of direction at both stages,’ writes Buber, indicating clearly that there is a good for the second stage even as for the first. (Images, pp. 36,73,81 ff.)
Further evidence that Buber has not left the narrow ridge in his attitude toward evil is his discussion of ‘God’s will to harden’ in Two Types of Faith (1950). On the three occasions when the Old Testament speaks of God as ‘hardening the heart’ of a person or people, it is because of his or their persistent turning away. The hardening comes in an extreme situation as a consequence of perversion ‘and . . . dreadfully enough . . . makes the going-astray into a state of having gone-astray from which there is no returning.’ ‘Sin is not an undertaking which man can break off when the situation becomes critical,’ Buber explains, ‘but a process started by him, the control of which is withdrawn from him at a fixed moment.’ (Two Types of Faith, pp. 83-90.)
The ‘special strength to persevere in sin’ which God grants the sinner when He ‘hardens’ his heart is a counterpart, we may surmise, of that absolute self-affirmation with which the ‘wicked’ closes himself off from God. God will not abridge the freedom which He has given man in creation, and therefore He allows this process of closing off to take place. His ‘hardening’ is His response to man’s decision against Him. It is at once the judgment with which He confirms the wicked in his non-existence and the ‘severe grace’ with which He points out to him the one road back to real existence.
Even in the dark hour after he has become guilty against his brother, man is not abandoned to the forces of chaos. God Himself seeks him out, and even when he comes to call him to account, His coming is salvation. (At the Turning, p. 56)
God remains open to man’s turning, but for the man whose way has vanished nothing less than a ‘conversion’ -- a turning of the whole being -- will suffice.
Despite the importance in Buber’s recent thought of such terms as contradiction, tragedy, eclipse of God, and ‘radical evil,’ he remains essentially different from even the least extreme of the dualists. His affirmation of the oneness of God and the ultimate oneness of God and the world has deepened in its paradoxical quality as he has taken more and more realistic cognizance of the evil of the world, but it has not wavered or weakened. The great significance, indeed, of that second stage of evil which is the newest development in Buber’s thought is its concrete base in human existence which makes understandable such extreme phenomena as Hitler and the Nazis without resorting to the dogma of original sin or agreeing with Sartre’s assertion that the events of recent years make it necessary to recognize evil as absolute and unredeemable.
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